Tasting Irish Cheeses

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Cheese.

Of course we all know you cannot say it without smiling. I actually cannot say it without salivating. The actually origin of cheese varies, with some food historians claiming it was first created in the Middle East, others in Greece and France. I am not a food historian so I won't offer any insight, although I do find the story of the Arab Nomad pretty romantic. After having filled a saddlebag with milk for a long journey across the desert he was surprised to find that the contents of the bag had separated into curds and whey. Did I mention the bag was made from the stomach of a young animal, giving the process the enzyme it needed to make the cheese?

I don't know about you, but hot milk under the desert sun isn't exactly my idea of refreshing. Couldn't he have just taken along a mai tai? Oh wait, then there'd be no cheese. Nevermind.

Ireland hasn't always been in the forefront of my mind when it comes to cheese production. Shamrocks, single malts and ballymaloe always came to mind, but cheese? English Stilton, Cheddar and Cheshire have always been favorites, so you can imagine how shocked I was that I wasted so much time getting to know the cheeses of Ireland.

Bad Matt! Bad Matt!

Boy, I had a lot of catching up to do. And catching up I did. I called up my friend Loren, got a few Irish cheeses together and had a small tasting. Definitely love at first bite.

Matt's Tasting Notes
Because of Ireland's climate, dairy herds graze on fresh pastures every 12 months. This results in rich, creamy cheese that is bold, assertive, and downright delicious.

Vintage Irish Cheddar
It's no secret that my personal flavor profile includes strong, full-bodied tastes and a love of strong, savory ingredients. Vintage Irish Cheddar was right there with me. It's been aged for 12 months which results in a rich, rounded flavor and smooth body. I could eat my own body weight in this stuff.

Dubliner
Kind of hard to pinpoint, this one. A harder cheese similar to cheddar but with an almost-nutty aftertaste like a softer Swiss. I read that it makes for a great grilled cheese sandwich (insert Pete Wells joke here) and I can see why. Delicious with a capital D.

Tipperary Irish Cheddar
Quick, get this block of cheese out of my hand now! I think this is the perfect snacking cheese as its creamy texture just melts in your mouth. A bit sharper than the Vintage Irish Cheddar I tasted.

Cahill's Whiskey Cheddar
When I say this was one of the most unusual things I've tasted in quite some time I mean it. Visually it's just as striking too, with a beautiful chunky mosaic pattern that is the result of Irish whiskey blended with cheddar. There's no missing the flavor of the whiskey at first bite, giving way to the tangy taste of the cheddar after a few seconds. And then there's the aroma of this cheese, too. Wow.

Green-Waxed Balleycashel
Big, green and striking, the result of the wheel being dipped in green wax. Creamy and soft, one of the lighter flavored cheese in this tasting.

Cashel Blue
Ok, so apparently Jane and Louis Grubb have been making this cheese since the 1980s and I'm just tasting it today. I'm embarrassed, ashamed, and on a mission to catch up. This is Ireland's only blue, lighter, softer and milder than its blue cousins around the world. I'm going to stop gushing about this cheese because I harbor a secret bias in favor of blue cheeses. I can never get enough.


Of course this isn't an extensive list of Irish cheeses, just the ones I could get my grubby little hands on. Know of any favorites you can suggest? I'd love to know. And if you live in Ireland and have an empty couch, well, I'm always available. I'm the perfect guest!


Frito Pie

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I've gone through great lengths to not let my professional culinary experience get the best of me. No amount of food tours, international travel, trade shows, dinners and tasting panels will ever go to my head, no sir! (Ok, written down it sounds exciting but trust me, it is a job.) Underneath the exterior of a man who tries his best to live up to his corporate image is a professional dork of the highest order. If you don't believe me I've got photographic evidence of me in a wig with, er, um, nevermind. Back to the food, the real reason why I keep this blog.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I find it necessary to step away from my professional life and get back to basics. And when I say basics I mean the tastes and flavors that i grew up with on the gulf coast of Texas, however-bad-for-you and trashy they may be.

Enter Frito Pie.

I was prompted to write this entry about my beloved Frito Pie because just today I was talking about it with a co-worker. I went on blabbing for about 6 minutes about how it's been forever since I've had one and how if I had my druthers I'd eat my weight in fritos and chili and get fat (ok, fatter) and never leave the house and wear torn up sweatpants and a wifebeater and drink nothing but Big Red and become a giant blob of a human being–all with tattoos, of course. After my co-worker let me gab nonstop (thanks, Sandy!) she turned to me, stared me straight in the eyes and asked:

"WHAT THE HELL IS A FRITO PIE???????"

Ok, people, if you keep a vegan blog, a blog focusing on healthy eating or living, or have any type of political agenda against bad taste or junk food then now is a great time to point your browser to another web site. You see, Frito Pie is so wrong that it's right, so bad that it's good, and that makes me very, very happy.

Just like margaritas and caesar salads, Frito Pie's origins aren't completely clear and have been debated for many years. Everyone seems to stake their claim to its invention, but in this case I could care less. New Mexico, Texas, Jupiter or Mars, it could be from Heaven as far as I'm concerned. Just keep them coming.

Ok, enough already. What exactly is a Frito Pie? A staple of county fairs, drive-ins, bake sales and ballparks for decades, Frito Pie nirvana is created when an individual serving-size bag of Fritos is spit open along the back and topped with chili, grated cheese and chopped onions. You may encounter different methods such as baking all the ingredients like a casserole but be assured that you're reading nothing more than good old-fashioned heresy.

As with all recipes of high quality pedigree, Frito Pie's ingredients and proportions do matter. I believe it's most authentic when prepared with canned chili without beans, and Frito Pies must be made with Frito-Lay brand corn chips. Anything less and it's not a Frito Pie. A scoop of chili is sufficient as your goal is to not drown the chips but slighty coat them, leaving them crunchy.

Ok, at this point I know what you're thinking: man this sounds absolutely atrocious and horrible and packed with sodium, artificial ingredients, saturated fat and I can't wait to try it! Seriously though, I won't fault you or get angry if you leave hate mail as I realize that regional "specialties" aren't for everyone. We can't all love cheese curds from Wisconsin, a grinder from New England, or even Poutine from Quebec (Wait a minute, I love all those things so scratch that point I was feebly attempting to make.)

Tomorrow I'll return to my world of artisan foods, but tonight I'll be indulging my inner Texan and damaging some arterial walls. I'm off to the kitchen, y'all!

Frito Pie

Ingredients
Fritos Corn Chips
Chili (without beans)
Grated Cheddar Cheese
Chopped Onion

Method
Heat chili and pour on top of Fritos. Top with cheese and onions. Because it's usually served on the go I have omitted exact amounts needed. It's always to taste, it seems. This recipe can also be prepared with vegetarian chili with delicious results. It's really the Fritos that make it so bad for you.


Lucky Charm

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Remind me when I've had more coffee to talk about a neighborhood here in Long Beach that houses a group of transplanted Irish families that have lived in California since the 1970s. Remind me to write about coveting invitations to their homes for dinners and parties because it makes me feel like I'm with my large family, and also remind me to tell you the story of how my Irish elders beat me hands down in the game of dancing, drinking and laughing into the wee hours of the morning.

Just Remind me.

Lest you think I'm generalizing (because I am), I just want to make it clear that I adore the similarities between Irish family get-togethers and those of Mexican families. There's music, tons of aunts and uncles and cousins running underfoot, plenty of food and drink, and endless boisterous laughter. We get tequila, they get whiskey and beer. Sometimes we both mix it up and act a bit crazy. Ok, a LOT crazy. To me, the one biggest thread that seems to run between both of these events is the unspoken feeling of togetherness. It's that moment in time where we all revel in a shared experience, celebrating the bonds and unions of friends, family and generations.

Can you tell I miss my family back home or what????

St. Patrick's Day may be a few weeks away, but I'm all about starting my celebrations early. And especially since I'm not the world's best baker – I'm not even a decent one – I figure I'd give myself plenty of time to ruin perfect my soda bread recipe.

(Incidentally, the bread photographed above wasn't my own creation and contrary to some traditionalists it does contain currants, but I did take the photo and I did eat every last crumb.)

I'm not good at debating nor arguing when it comes to food; that's why you'll never* hear me fight over organic vs. conventional, vegan vs. animal products, etc. Food is a highly personal choice based on so many factors, who am I to say one way is better than another? There will be no diatribe about the authenticity of Irish Soda Bread here, heck, I'm not even Irish! With that said, here's a very basic recipe from Bon Appétit Magazine. Caraway seeds are a nice addition here but certainly not necessary.

Ingredients
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons caraway seeds
1 cup raisins
1 3/4 cups well-shaken buttermilk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Method
Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter and flour a large baking sheet, knocking off excess flour.
Sift together 4 cups flour, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl and stir in sugar, caraway, and raisins. Add buttermilk and stir just until dough is evenly moistened but still lumpy.

Transfer dough to a well-floured surface and gently knead with floured hands about 8 times to form a soft but slightly less sticky dough. Halve dough and form into 2 balls. Pat out each ball into a domed 6-inch round on baking sheet. Cut a 1/2-inch-deep X on top of each loaf with a sharp knife, then brush loaves with butter.

Bake in middle of oven until golden brown and bottoms sound hollow when tapped, 35 to 40 minutes. Transfer loaves to racks to cool completely.

Makes 2 (6-inch) loaves.


* The lone exception is BBQ. As a Texan, well, we do it best. I will hear of nothing else.


Truffle Love

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To say that truffles are an acquired taste for me would be an understatement; I can't ever think of a moment when these heady gems crossed our family table growing up. Truffles and Tex Mex don't normally hang out together, you know. It wasn't until I became an adult that I had my first taste of the powerful fungus, and if you'll allow me to be dramatic for just one second, it literally knocked me off my feet.

Much has been said about the beauty and rarity of truffles, so I'll go ahead and leave the praise and culinary history to the professionals. By now you probably already know they are fungi and that they are harvested by dogs and pigs in Italy, France and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. You probably already know that they can fill a room with their aroma, but did you know that I know a Fed Ex driver who curses and swears each time he makes a white truffle delivery? Hey, I could think of worse smells for the inside of a delivery truck, can't you?

I eased myself into the flavor of truffles by going slow and easy. Any time I'd see it listed on a menu as an ingredient I'd order it, and over time I stocked my pantry with artisan truffle oils, both black and white, as well as truffle salt. But the real blessing (or challenge or curse, however you feel about them) came when I was given a few whole white and black truffles to photograph and play around with.

My little gems arrived in small containers packed in arborio rice, a very standard transportation method. I knew that they were fresh and wouldn't last long, but I honestly hadn't anticipated the strong smell they'd impart on just about everything in my kitchen. Everyday my partner would ask "when for the love of God are you going to use these evil things and get them out of the damn house???" If he felt that strongly about them then I can only imagine what a truffle farmer must deal with, but that's an image I have day dreamed about many times over. You see, I've grown to love that distinctive smell and the unique taste, and I just can't get enough.

The next few days were spent experimenting. Because I actually had fresh truffles in my grubby little hands I took the advice of a chef friend and cooked them as little as possible, adding them shaved with fluffy scrambled eggs, on top of fresh angel hair pasta, and added last minute to creamy mushroom soup. Perhaps my favorite way of using them was in risotto; starchy Italian arborio rice is a natural with truffles and even seemed to satisfy the palate of my non-truffle-lovin' boyfriend.

Sadly, my truffle experience was shorted lived. My boyfriend's patience ended and the truffles had to find new homes, but little does he know I have one well bundled and tucked away safely in the back of the freezer. We'll see if he ever notices.

Risotto Cacio Di Bosco Al Tartufo

Ok, get ready for a double punch of truffle goodness here. This recipe features Cacio Di Bosco Al Tartufo, an Italian cheese made from sheep's and cow's milk. It's studded with tiny specks of truffles and is pure heaven. If your local market carries it then you should by it. Seriously. Serve this risotto with a few slices of fresh truffle on top and you'll push it over the edge. Heaven, if you ask me!

Ingredients
1 small yellow onion
1/2 stick unsalted butter
5 cups chicken broth
2 cups arborio rice
1 cup grated Cacio Di Bosco

Method
Peel and finely chop the onion. Melt the butter in a large 4-to-5 quart saucepan over medium heat, stirring regularly. Add the onions and cook until translucent, stirring often.

Meanwhile, heat the stock in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Adjust the heat as needed to keep it simmering gently.

Once the onions are cooked, brown the rice by adding it to the onions for about 3 minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly. Once browned, add the simmering stock to the rice and onions, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly. Keep stirring until the rice absorbs the liquid (it will go from soupy to dry). Continue to add the liquid to the rice in batches, constantly stirring and scraping the bottom of your pan so that no rice sticks to the pan.

Taste the rice with a fork to test doneness, about 20 minutes. The risotto should be soft but not mushy. If it’s crunchy, continue cooking and adding liquid. If you find yourself out of liquid, don’t worry; heat up another cup of stock or use hot water if necessary. Once cooked, add the cheese and stir well to melt and incorporate it into the rice. Serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6 people.


'Nuff Said.

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A Berry Bounty

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It was one of those perfect California mornings along the coast: bright, crisp and breezy, the kind of day that starts a bit chilly but gives way to downright hot, sunny weather. The kind of day that invigorates you, letting you warm up with Mother Nature, not too fast, not too slow, but just right.

As it turns out, it's not just my idea of ideal weather but also the perfect environment for growing strawberries.

I was in Oxnard, about 45 minutes north of Los Angeles, to meet Mike Ferro of Saticoy Berry Farms. Mike's family has been growing strawberries in this area for three generations, and knows just about everything one needs to know about these beloved berries. Mike has 325 acres of land and produces around 1,200,000 packages of fresh strawberries between January and May. After the fresh season the Ferros supply another bounty of berries for the cannery process, and it's these berries that make their way into commercial jams and preserves.

It's mind-boggling to realize that 83% of strawberries eaten in the United States are grown in California, and even more astonishing to realize that this fragile, short-lived berry is a $767 million dollar industry in California. Saticoy's strawberries are hand-picked and packaged in the field, cooled down quickly and then sent on their way domestically and internationally to locations like Canada, Mexico, and even Hong Kong. Quite a distance for this little berry!

Nearly 90% of his 325 acres are planted with the Camarosa variety berry, a variety that Mike believes tastes better and has a higher durability factor. Of course he could expand his acreage and grow an easier berry in order to make more money, but he believes in leaving that job to the big wigs. Being relatively small suits him just fine, and one bite of his Camarosa strawberry proves that he's right on track.



Strawberry Panna Cotta
Strawberries don't last long. In fact, Mike Ferro joked with me that if someone finds a way to make them last longer than 7-10 days then he's out of the farming business as soon as possible! With that said, I believe they are best savored as simply as possible; their amazing strawberry-ness gets lost when buried under too many ingredients.

This panna cotta is about as easy as it gets. Top with strawberries that have been macerated in a bit of sugar and a good balsamic vinegar.


Ingredients
3 cups sliced strawberries
1 3/4 cups low fat buttermilk
5 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup whole milk

Method
1 . Blend buttermilk, sugar and sliced strawberries in a blender until well mixed. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a bowl to remove the solids. Discard solids.
2. In a small bowl sprinkle the gelatin over the milk; let it stand for 1 minute.
3. In a small saucepan heat the heavy cream until it simmers, careful not to boil or overheat. Once heated, remove from heat and add milk & gelatin mixture and mix well until dissolved.
4. Whisk the cream mixture into the strawberry puree and pour into small ramekins. Cover and chill the molds in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours.
5. To serve, dip the molds in warm water for a few seconds to loosen the panna cotta; invert them onto plates and remove the ramekin. Top with sliced strawberries and enjoy. Serves six.


Buenos Aires

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Preface: This story and our excursion to Argentina could not have been possible without the assistance of Thiago Magalhaes. Thiago graciously provided me with endless suggestions, notes and recommendations for our trip, and there's simply no way I can repay the favor nor show my gratitude enough for making it an experience of a lifetime. If you are lucky enough to call him a friend then I must say you are truly blessed. T, we love you.

It was an article in May 2005's Saveur Magazine that prompted me to make a plan and finally visit a city that I'd always wanted to explore. Buenos Aires has always facinated me, in part because of the country's rich history, the blend of cultures from Europe and South America, and the people. Regal, glorious, quaint, progressive and lovely, the reason we chose Buenos Aires above all was for one simple reason: we went to eat.

And eat we did.

After a long, grueling flight from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires with a stop in Washington D.C., we touched down in chilly brisk winter weather. It took us only a few minutes to get settled before we were off having our first light lunch. We'd received fair warning about the late night culture and eating schedule and knew we wouldn't be sitting down for a meal for quite some time so we decided on a light lunch at a restaurant called Campechano. Milanesa, thin steak dipped in egg and flour then fried, papas fritas, a wedge of lemon and a bottle of vino blanco from Mendoza satisfied us while we shopped and walked through La Recoleta. Our afternoon wouldn't have been complete with a visit to the highly-recommended Freddo for ice cream. Freddo, with outlets throughout Buenos Aires, serves some of the most delicious helado I've ever had. Chocolate Amargo, Crema Tramontana and Dulce De Leche helado never tasted so good.



After a leisurely afternoon checking out the sites and an even longer nap we headed over to Casa Cruz for a late dinner. Listed as one of Conde Nast's Hot Tables for 2005, Casa Cruz's former warehouse space has been converted into a dark, lux, rich elegant room reminiscent of an old gentleman's club. Pure Swank deluxe. A creative modern menu featuring eclectic entrees, we sampled the Ojo de Bife that was topped with a dollop of fried mayonnaise (yes, you read that correctly... FRIED MAYONNAISE!). Fried potatoes arrived on the side and took the shape of small fingers, and I enjoyed a delicious Provolone Soufflé. We weren't too crazy about the Tierra del Fuego king crab as an appetizer, but our perfectly mixed Manhattans before the meal made up for any and all shortcomings that Casa Cruz might have faced. I've read many negative reviews online about Casa Cruz's service and food, but our experience couldn't have been better. It was so nice we returned a few nights later and did it all over again. Let's hear it for gluttony!

Friday got off to a delicious start with cafe con leche and medialunas. Why on earth I can't find cafe con leche in Los Angeles served this way or the way I have it in Spain is beyond me, it's enough to make me want to cry. After a visit to La Casa Rosada and the downtown area of Buenos Aires we ended up in Puerto Madero. Shops, cafes and restaurants line the docks of this once seedy area and in recent times it's become quite the tourist area. Making a restaurant choice in Buenos Aires can be difficult – there's so much good food – but luckily our friend Thiago recommended one of his favorite places in this part of town, a restaurant called Bahia Madero. Do you ever have one of those perfect meals, where the food, company, environment and moment all come together? That's the best way to describe our lunch. It was a sunny, warm day, the perfect temperature, and our meal was exemplary. When it came to wine we focused on Malbec and Torrontes primarily; I wanted to soak in as much of the experience as possible. At lunch we had Alamos Malbec from Mendoza with was just right with rich pasta. I'm a firm believer that there are very good inexpensive wines out there, and to me it was hard to find something I didn't like from Argentina.



Friday night we headed to Capitana for dinner, located in the very hip neighborhood of Palermo Viejo. The service was agreeable, the food was nice but not incredibly noteworthy. Again, we stayed true to our carnivorous nature and ate steak and sweetbreads. I found myself more impressed with its modern, open space and beautiful front window. Definitely a nice place to have a drink with friends.

Saturday's lunch at La Baita had to be perhaps one of our most favorite meals. La Baita is a very small corner Italian restaurant that manages to fill up rather quickly, even for lunch. A beautiful antipasti of olives, artichoke hearts, sardines and eggplant started our meal. From there we had Bife de Lomo, Lasagna au gratin, and Crespelles de centolla–French crepes that are stuffed with crab meat and topped with cream, cheese and prepared gratin-style. This single dish has appeared in my dreams multiple times. No kidding.

For dinner we stopped by the restaurant at the Bobo Hotel, another 2005 Conde Nast pick. This small and elegant boutique hotel surely didn't disappoint with its creative and delicious menu. I thoroughly enjoyed the room, the service, and really loved my stuffed rabbit with a confit of potatoes, spinach, port sauce and braised endive. My other half jumped right into his sirloin medallions with a center of tomato, manchego, cadamom and onion that's wrapped up in philo dough. What on earth is not to like about that? After our meal and cocktails I was beginning to think it was impossible to get a bad meal in Buenos Aires.



Sunday morning came and we needed to switch gears. We realized we had indulged so extravagantly, so lavishly, that we decided to go the simple route for most of the day. A simple breakfast followed by pizza at Filo a few hours later seemed to get us back on track. With over 4,000 pizzerias in Buenos Aires we were glad for the point in the right direction. We spent Sunday running around, visiting La Feria de San Telmo and trying to walk off our new well-earned pounds. All this was clearly in vain though, as dinner was a second visit to Casa Cruz (didn't I say we were going to take it easy today?) It must really be saying something if you're immediately recognized by the host and wait staff of a restaurant and it's only your 4th day in town. And then I wonder why I'm overweight.



As our quick trip to Buenos Aires was coming to an end I realized we hadn't enjoyed a typical Argentinian Parilla. It seemed that we got sidetracked by a very vibrant restaurant scene and extremely creative chefs but there was no way I was going to miss what brought me all the way down there in the first place: grilled, smoky tender steak. Because this country does it better than anyone else, there are steakhouses on every corner. My mind went numb trying to decide where to go but luckily I had recommendations from Thiago and a few locals. With that decision made for us we went to La Caballeriza in Recoleta. A chain restaurant featuring a vast selection of grilled meats and sides, I must say that it was almost too much at one time. And this is from a boy that grew up on barbeque! Of course none of that stopped me from enjoying asado de tira, bife de chorizo, papas a la provenzal and my new favorite artery-clogging dish, Provoleta. Provoleta is a thick slice of provolone that has been aged for at least 30 days. The cheese is brushed with extra-virgin olive oil and grilled until lightly browned and melted, then served topped with sprinkled dried oregano. Needless to say it was delicious and was devoured in about six seconds.

Because we spent only a few days in Buenos Aires we never had the chance to make it to any estancias and the wine country, where I understand Argentina's true beauty shines. As soon as the long, cruel and crowded flight is but a small memory–and I lose the extra 10 lbs I gained in South America–we shall return and do what we do best: eat and drink.

Campechano Larrea 1541
Freddo various locations throughout Buenos Aires
Casa Cruz Uriarte 1658
Bahia Madero Alicia Moreau de Justo 430
Capitana Uriarte 1616
La Baita Thames 1603
Bobo Hotel Guatemala 4882
Filo San Martin 975
La Caballeriza Vicente Lopez 2024


Spring Asparagus ... Sorta

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Because I design and create for the retail environment I find myself working many months in advance. This can be frustrating at times, especially if you're trying to muster excitement about grilling sauces and it's 40 degrees and dark and chilly outside. Maybe this is why I enjoy Australian magazines so much; the inverted seasons seem to reflect the disjointed season that I must transplant myself into.

(But wait - that means their editorial staff works in advance, too, which means they're writing about winter in summer which is my winter which means I'm working on summer..... oh jeez, now I've gone and confused myself.)

My family and friends have grown accustomed to holiday gift baskets and candy canes floating around my house in August, coming over for Thanksgiving treats in July and barbecuing in January just for the sake of a photograph. It's fun and confusing, especially for someone who truly believes in eating seasonally. But hey, it's my job and I love it.

As frustrating as it can be there's no time I enjoy being out of sync more than right now. To me, February means spring is right around the corner, bringing longer days, the promise of tender spring vegetables, a bevy of nice holidays centered around food and an excuse to play croquet on Sunday afternoons (of course, if you're on the East Coast this might be hard to envision considering last weekend's snow storm.)

It seemed fitting that I had to do some asparagus stuff over this past weekend. While I realize it's not quite asparagus season for everyone, I was able to get my hands on some relatively good bunches of delicious asparagus. While they're certainly not Spring's best they still managed to remind me why I love eating this vegetable. While there are so many ways with these slender stalks out there, I tend to appreciate them most when they are prepared very simply. I could eat oven-roasted asparagus drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and a quick grate of lemon zest on top every day and never get bored. But perhaps my favorite is when they're grilled or griddled and topped with Gribiche. How I can't wait for Spring!


Asparagus with Gribiche Sauce

Quickly cooking asparagus over high heat gives it a smoky, deep flavor. Top it with Salsa Gribiche, an easy combination of eggs, dijon, herbs, olive oil and capers. Simple and divine.

Ingredients
For the sauce:
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 hard boiled egg, finely chopped
1 teaspoon capers
1/2 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
1/2 tablespoon fresh chopped tarragon
salt and pepper to taste

For the asparagus:
1 bunch asparagus
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Method
1. Whisk olive oil, vinegar and Dijon mustard together. Once blended, add chopped egg, capers and herbs and season with salt and pepper to taste.

2. Heat olive oil in a large saute pan until very hot, until almost smoking. Place asparagus in hot oil and cook until slightly charred. Top with Gribiche sauce and serve immediately.


A Mission Statement

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I am prompted to write today because of an article written by Pete Wells in Food & Wine Magazine. It touched off a small discussion on another site that I read called Food Musings and it got me thinking: I'm new to this whole world of food blogging. Do I really need to subject my stuff in an already overly-saturated cyber market of food writers? Clearly there are others who do a much better job (and of course I think no one does it better than Melissa at Traveler's Lunchbox and Aun at Chubby Hubby). Am I really just going to waste bandwidth talking about what I had for lunch? Gee, I hope not. With that said I decided to put together my first Mission Statement, if for no reason to just make it clear why I do what I do.

Matt Bites Mission Statement

1. I am passionate about taste, flavor and quality.
I always have been and always will be. I've dedicated my career to it.

2. I believe those who farm, grow, harvest and create high quality food and products have a story that deserves to be shared.
Hopefully I can do a tiny bit of justice and tell their story thanks to the access provided to me by my job.

3. Food Connects People.
It has since the beginning of time and always will. In our current world we need this more than ever.

4. I sincerely value the merits and actions of those who promote and believe in good food.
Students, chefs, bakers, writers, photographers, stylists and cooks all really rock my world.

5. I don't enter contests.
Designer Bruce Mau says "Don't enter award competitions. Just don't. It's not good for you." This not only applies to this site but also to my day job. I'm a self-taught everything and while recognition is appreciated it's not my motivation.

6. Irreverence is my middle name.
Ok, it's really "Benjamin" after my father but it might as well be "goofy".

Oh, and on the occasion I'm truly moved to write about what I had for lunch, please, go easy.


Happy Valentine's Day! (a/k/a the Trashiest Drink I'll Ever Admit To Drinking)

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Oh, Spain spain spain. El Bulli Basque Blah Chorizo Pimenton Spain Spain Spain. Serrano Croquetas Mahon Zamorano Cava Rioja Morcilla Lomo Spain Spain Spain. Spain Spain Spain.

There, I feel better.

Lest you think I'm being sarcastic, I am not. I love Spain. Let me say it again: I love Spain. It's where my family's ancestors are from, genealogically speaking. And I'm proud to sport a crazy long and OLD Basque surname. I love my Spanish friends and I love the way Spanish people welcome me into their homes when I visit their glorious country, sharing long meals with me that go deep into the night.

With that said, I'd like to veer just a little bit off the path of Spain's culinary hotness and talk about something so trashy, so silly, so Spanish: Kalimotxo.

Kalimotxo (pronounced Calimucho) is one of those things that I secretly love but never admit to drinking outside of my close circle of friends. It's a concoction of cheap red wine, ice, syrup and Coke and enjoyed in the Basque country. Yes, you read that right. A glorified wine cooler, vulgar and crude. AND I LOVE IT!

Like all regional specialties, what goes into a Kalimoxto changes wherever you are at. Add lemon-lime soda and it becomes Pitilingorri, use orange soda and you have yourself a Txurrimuski. Made with white wine and your Kailmotxo becomes a Kalitxuri! FUN!

The irony in all this is that I am not a soda or Coke drinker at all, and in fact I don't care for syrupy sweet things too often. I do love a good homemade Sangria, so it stands to reason that I'd dig a Kalimotxo on a long-summer day provided there are no cameras or food purists around.

Skip the fancy-schmancy this Valentine's Day–I know I am! Serve up a big plastic 2-liter of Kalimotxo, eat some Popeye's fried chicken and wrap your greasy arms around the one you love. Remember, we can return to high-class eating and drinking tomorrow. Cheers!

Kalimotxo
This delightful beverage must be made with bad red wine. You wouldn't mix a bottle of the good stuff with Coca Cola, would you? I didn't think so. Also, don't get fancy with the soda here and do NOT shop your generic aisle; YOU MUST USE COKE®! I add a splash of raspberry syrup because I got it like dat. Suck it up, buttercup!

Recipe
Red Wine
Coke
Ice
Splash of Raspberry Syrup (if you like)
Lots of ice.

Method
Mix it up to your liking. Serve with aspirin or ibuprofen the next day.

Note to my Wine Pedant friends, including retailers, tasters, importers and vintners: Zip it. Can it. Hush. Silencio, por favor. I know what you're thinking and you're right. Just today I ask you to keep your lectures and gasps and fainting spells to yourself. Is that too much to ask for?


Reflections on Zuni, 10 years later

107 comments




There's really no reason for this posting. I haven't been in a few months, I have no immediate plans to visit San Francisco other than photographing some cheesemakers in the Bay Area in the next few weeks, and I'm no restaurant critic. But what I am is a man madly in love with the food, the experience and the legacy of Judy Rodger's Zuni Cafe. And it's been 10 years this month that Zuni has etched its delicious goodness into my consciousness.

I should let you know that I'm not a restaurant groupie. I do like checking out the popular spots to see what the fuss is about, but I don't believe food needs a celebrity investor and its own limited edition tableware in order to be enjoyed. Most of the time I just like to keep it simple. Simple man, simple pleasures... that's me.

Enter Zuni. For those who may not have ever been I have no doubt you've heard or read about it at some point. It's a Bay Area institution, wait, a California institution. It opened in 1979, which is ancient in restaurant years. Zuni has been the recipient of countless awards, even gathering rave reviews to this day, like her 2004 James Beard Outstanding Chef Award. My guess is that she does it by letting the food speak for itself, featuring honest, high-quality ingredients. The menu is a bit eclectic but keeps its roots in Mediterranean, and there's absolutely nothing on that menu I don't love passionately or have ever been disappointed by.

My first experience at Zuni was in 1996. I was 26 years old and had just taken a job as a designer in San Francisco. It was a reverse shock to leave a Chicago winter and step into a west coast February, but I loved it and knew there was no turning back. I contacted an old friend who just left a job at Zuni to pursue his music career, and he suggested we meet at the cafe to catch up. I'd only read about Zuni at that point but was clearly excited – no, THRILLED– to experience it firsthand with someone who knew Judy, the menu and the staff.

We hugged and laughed and talked about Austin (where we were both originally from) over fresh Malpeque oysters and cosmopolitans at the bar. After my third cosmo (hey, I was in my 20's, I could do it then!) I summoned up enough courage to ask about everything else on the menu. And it was at that single moment that my life changed. You see, my friend Mark could sense what I was asking and threw caution to the wind and proceeded to order a caesar, house-cured anchovies with parmesan shavings, shoe string fries, a burger with gruyere and pickled onions and Zuni's famous roasted chicken, just for me to taste. I was officially inducted into the world of Gluttony at that point, and I savored every minute of it.

After we rolled out hours later I felt as if I had found a home away from home. Over the next 5 years of living in San Francisco I found any and every excuse to eat at Zuni. I've even celebrated my birthday dinner at Zuni every year. And no, I was never tired nor bored. I found I could have a mimosa and breakfast and read the paper with a friend on a Sunday morning at Zuni, or take my visiting friends and family for long, delicious laughter-filled dinners. But the culmination of my obsession came when I accepted a position in Los Angeles and had 4 different friends take me out for a farewell dinner on four separate nights. Yes, people, it was Zuni four nights in a row. What can I say?

I once remember a 9-year old girl telling the adults at the table what she recommended from the day's menu; she ran down almost every single item, describing its preparation and ingredients and whether she suggested ordering it. I wonder where that girl is today, probably off cooking and writing somewhere. But it was at that point that it made me realize that Zuni is much more than a quirky California restaurant but a place where we can connect with each other but also with the food; that seems pretty rare if you ask me.

Zuni and Ms. Rodgers, how I love you so.


Leaving Well Enough Alone

7 comments



As Valentine's Day fast approaches I'm reminded of the perils of marketing high end food as an occupation. It's today's article in the New York Times that prompts me to blog.

"Terroir. Origin. Single variety blend."

No, I'm not talking about wines or whiskeys. I'm talking about chocolate.

Before I go one step further I should just say that I plan on going against the grain here. I plan on taking a stand against the need to "fussify" and make precious something that was fine just as it was. I plan on a departure from my professional career, if only temporarily.

Can we just leave chocolate alone, people?

I think I'm relatively knowledgeable about chocolate. It's my job to be. I know the basic percentages of cocoa solids in the dark, bittersweet and milk varieties. I understand chocolate liquor. I grasp the growing, harvesting and production methods used. I appreciate the blends created by food artists the world over. I can taste the difference between Michael Recchiuti's chocolate and a Mars Bar. But darn it to heck, I just can't get my little brain around all these single-variety, single-origin and exclusive-derivation terms. To me, they amount to nothing more than smoke and mirrors, the basics of food marketing 101: make it fancy, slap a feel-good story on it and the people will come.

As a marketing professional and advertising director, well, I'm guilty as charged. You see, I'm guilty of pushing a concept that I don't really stand behind, and I'm still waiting for someone to change my mind. Until then, stay far, far away, you Chocolate Sommeliers!

It seems like I'm in relatively good company, though. There are a few food professionals and chocolatiers who don't buy the hype. They believe that the bean's origins don't indicate quality or flavor once they're roasted, conched, tempered, blended and mixed. ""The art of chocolate-making is in blending. People who think just about percentage or just about origin stop tasting and just focus on some kind of concept that is constantly changing," says Robert Steinberg, a founder of Scharffen Berger chocolate here in California.

I guess I can't blame people, though. It seems that all of us are constantly chasing the next big thing, trying to predict, buy, market and push what's next on the forefront. Heck, we did it with mojitos, with pomegranates, with cupcakes, with hot sauces and olive oils, chocolate had to be next, naturally. Go ahead and eat your fancy chocolate, but please don't let it become something else it need not be.

Ok, off my soapbox and back to my day job. I've got a case of amazing single-origin bars from Venezuela, 70%, if you're interested. You just have to taste them!


Heaven from Down Under

4 comments




Every once in a while I find a line of products that really knock my socks off. In typical Matt-style, I go overboard, hoarding cases and boxes of said product, eating it until I can take no more. Then I start all over again. Somewhere in between I force friends and family to listen to me rant and rave, pushing bites of this week's new flavor right down their throats. Sometimes I'm met with acceptance, usually it's with resistance, unfortunately. It seems not everyone wants to share my love of high-quality anchovies in glass, or perhaps they don't get excited over Shaft's Ellie's Vintage Blue eaten alongside every meal for a week. Come on, people, work with me!

If you know me you know how much I love cheese. You also know that I always have a ridiculous amount of it left over from photo shoots, tastings, samplings, etc. I believe that a cheese tray is one of life's greatest gustatory delights, but you can't just lob down a chevre or blue when friends come over and call it a day. Of course not. One must offer contrasting tastes and textures: that's where Valley Produce Company comes in.

I can't remember if it was last year's Fancy Food Show or a chance meeting of the taste buds, but I do know that ever since I tasted (read: devoured) Chris Smith's line of condiments I considered myself a loyal follower. Chris Smith started Valley Produce Company in late 2000 in Australia's Yarra Valley. Chris, a chef by trade, had a vision for high quality oils, honey and condiments and before long his dream became a reality. To say he's the hardest working man in self promotion would be an understatement, and this man travels the world telling his story and sampling his goods. Unfortunately his award-winning oils haven't made their way to the US just yet, but luckily we get to enjoy his Fruit Pyramids, which if you ask me, are the best things this side of heaven. A slice of his pear & hazelnut fruit spread with a bite of brie? I'm drooling as I type.

Then there's his Truffle Infused Honey. This is the product that causes everyone to react the same way the first time they taste it. First there's silence, then the eyes rolls back as a wave of pleasure takes over, a temporary state of bliss kicks in which is followed by a "OH MY GOD I CANNOT BELIEVE THAT". Trust me, it happens every single time. Even for those who don't particularly care for truffles. It might be so good because Chris personally hunts for truffles in France himself (ok, he has a pig that helps him, seriously). Or it might be because there are a few ounces of sliced truffles in each jar. Or maybe because the honey comes from bees from his own farm–is there anything this guy doesn't do? Whatever it is, this honey is something I cannot do without. Drizzled on a pungent blue cheese and enjoyed with fruit makes me a very, very happy boy.

Oh, back to that bit about hoarding boxes and cases of stuff. If you're too far away to stop by my house for some cheese, wine and a tasting of Valley Produce Company's line of products, I urge you to hunt this stuff down and experience it for yourself. It really is that good.

Figs stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in proscuitto drizzled with truffle honey

Ingredients
15 figs
8 slices of proscuitto cut in half
200 grams blue cheese cut into 1x2cm rectangle
Valley Produce Company Truffle Honey

Method 
Cut a star in the top of the fig and stuff the blue cheese in the fig. Wrap in the proscuitto and secure with a tooth pick. Bake at 180.c for 10 min on a greased tray and the figs Should be soft. Drizzle with the truffle honey and serve immediately. Serve on a plate with rocket (or as we Americans call it arugula).


Peace, Love and Granola

2 comments




I've always thought it was a bit funny that I got my start in the advertising business at Whole Foods Market. Well, that's not so funny in and of itself, but I started at a time when the company was very, very small and not quite the big flashy natural food conglomerate that it is today. We were all branded as hippies, and granola was not only something we sold but also a not-so-pleasant adjective used to describe the shoppers and employees. I wasn't a peace-loving vegetarian exactly, but I never found it quite fair to use granola as an insult. Oh, some people!

Fast forward 15 years later. While I still may dabble in meatless alternatives from time to time and partake in all things tempeh and tofu on occasion, granola is still a part of my world on a regular basis. Next to oatmeal in the morning, granola is to me the perfect breakfast, snack and all around crunchy companion. Add fruit and it's a meal; bake it into bars and it's an amazing dessert. It's never mysteriously complex but always hearty, and that might be why it's often maligned as a god-like food for the birkenstock and vegan set.

Making granola at home is easy, and it lends itself to experimentation quite well (disclosure: I am not a cook with an exacting nature; a dash of this and a dash of that has always been my M.O. and also the reason you'll never ever ever see me baking). This is one of my regular recipes courtesy of Whole Foods, and next to guacamole, it's probably the only thing that's dairy-free and vegetarian that ever comes out of my kitchen!

Nutmeg & Almond Granola

3 cups old fashioned rolled oats
3 tablespoons oat flour or whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup slivered, blanched almonds
1/2 cup good quality honey
1/3 cup sunflower oil or canola oil
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 to 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon sea salt

Blend the oats, flour and almonds together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the maple syrup or honey, oil, almond extract, nutmeg and salt. Add to the oat mixture, stirring well to coat.

Place mixture on a large cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for one hour, stirring and turning granola over half way during baking to break up lumps. Allow the granola to cool completely then store in an airtight container.

Serve with milk, soy milk, yogurt, or fruit. Or just eat plain out of hand. You can't go wrong.


About me

  • I'm Matt Armendariz
  • From Los Angeles, California
  • A man with a passion for good food and a wonderful life with a dash of irreverence. Read at your own risk. Advertising director by day, wino by night. All photos on this site by Matt Armendariz.
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